At the Patrick J. Kennedy Elementary School in East Boston, about three-quarters of the 300 students do not speak English fluently, the highest rate of any elementary school in Massachusetts. Last year alone, nearly three dozen students from El Salvador, Colombia, and other countries trickled into the school sometime after September.
Yet over the past six years, the P.J. Kennedy has repeatedly earned the highest rating under the state’s school accountability system. The school’s work specifically with English language learners has made it shine.
Across East Boston, long a haven for new immigrants, schools are debunking a deeply rooted misconception that serving large populations of English language learners is a recipe for failure. These students — who now make up 31 percent of Boston Public Schools enrollment — frequently get blamed by educators and politicians in Massachusetts when schools are designated as “underperforming” by the state.
But in East Boston, six of the nine elementary and K-8 schools earned the highest rating under the state’s accountability system last year, the last time the state rated all public schools. Three schools received state commendations for making significant gains or narrowing proficiency gaps.
The path to success was not easy for the East Boston schools, which over the past several years changed teaching techniques, meticulously analyzed student test scores and class work, and created specialized programs to help students pick up English faster.
The Umana K-8 started a popular program in which students who speak English or Spanish learn each other’s languages by taking classes in both, helping enrollment nearly double to 1,000 students. The McKay K-8 has empowered teachers to craft their own lessons instead of relying only on district-prescribed curriculums.
And the P.J. Kennedy launched an “acceleration clinic” three years ago that provides kindergartners and first-graders with intensive tutoring in English before and after school.
But one of the most powerful efforts the schools have undertaken is tied not specifically to the students but to their families, school leaders said. The schools have made family and community engagement a cornerstone of their overhaul efforts, helping the neighborhood to have among the highest parent participation rates in the city.
The Otis Elementary, for instance, started “academic parent-teacher teams,” in which teachers share their learning goals and provide families with strategies to help their children at home. Other schools followed suit.
Many schools also offer English classes for parents so they can communicate more effectively with their children’s teachers and help them build stronger relationships in their communities and expand job opportunities.
“It’s not something that’s in the water that makes so many of our schools successful,” said Jordan Weymer, principal of the McKay K-8 School. “It’s family and community involvement” and other concerted efforts.
Nubia Jimenez, an immigrant from Colombia, remembers when she first stepped inside the P.J. Kennedy about seven years ago. The red brick schoolhouse, located near her home, was hosting playgroups for toddlers. Jimenez, who brought her young son, was immediately impressed and eventually decided to enroll him there for kindergarten.
“Most of the students at the school are immigrants,” she said. “The kids have a lot of support and success. It’s like a family.”
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Before lunch one day at the P.J. Kennedy, two girls who recently emigrated from Colombia and another from El Salvador set up a store in a small classroom where they pretended to purchase items, such as pencils, tape, and index cards. Their teacher was preparing them for an upcoming field trip to a neighborhood store, where the girls would practice their English while shopping.
The lesson was part of a class called “Conversations in English.” It targets fourth- and fifth-graders so they can learn basic English quickly, reducing the need to sit at their desks with a stack of picture cards with English translations, which can be embarrassing for them.
Observing the lesson, Kristen Goncalves, the principal, said, “You can only teach students when they feel comfortable and safe.”
While the P.J. Kennedy has repeatedly been rated highly by the state, teachers and administrators continue to refine their programs. Three years ago, for instance, a group of teachers and administrators noticed a small group of English language learners was struggling and could benefit from some extra tutoring. That’s where the idea for the “acceleration clinics,” which focus on the fundamentals of reading, came from.
The program, funded through a grant from EdVestors, a Boston nonprofit, proved to be so successful that the school expanded it. The school continues to tinker with the approach and this year added the Reading Recovery program to help some first-graders during the school day.
One recent morning, Jeesun Yoon, a reading specialist, worked in a tiny room with 7-year-old Estevan Vilorio on how to correctly spell words that often stump first-graders.
“Do you know how to write the word ‘kick’?” Yoon asked the boy.
Estevan sounded out and wrote down the K and I, but then he got stuck.
Yoon offered a clue: “Sometimes two letters together make the same sound.”
Estevan’s big brown eyes lit up and a smile crept across his face as he wrote a C and a K.
Then they moved onto a word that contained a seemingly pointless double letter: “ball.”
Marybeth Hamwey, a P.J. Kennedy teacher, said helping English language learners excel comes down to some basic guiding principles.
“It’s about believing in them and having them believe in themselves, and not giving up on them as you hold them to high standards,” she said.
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East Boston’s success with English language learners is a bright spot in an area in which Boston and other school systems statewide have struggled.
English language learners in Massachusetts and nationwide have among the lowest standardized test scores and graduation rates.
Many educators statewide have said they feel hamstrung by a 2002 voter-approved ballot measure that requires schools to deliver instruction, for the most part, only in English. (Special exceptions are made for dual-language programs, such as the one at the Umana, that aim to make students fluent in English and another language.)
But the problems in Boston have run deeper than methodology. For the past seven years, Boston has been working under a settlement agreement with the US Departments of Education and Justice to bring programs into compliance with federal law, after an investigation revealed thousands of students were not receiving required specialized instruction.
Why do East Boston schools do well with English learners while many more struggle?
Superintendent Tommy Chang and other educators consider East Boston’s unique geography a benefit. Separated from the rest of the city by Boston Harbor, its relative isolation has created a tight-knit community that has fostered a spirit of collaboration among its 11 schools, enabling them to function almost like a miniature school system.
Principals routinely seek advice from one another, and families see the schools as an essential part of life in the neighborhood.
“Everybody knows each other, the principals know each other, the teachers know each other, the students know each other, and the families know each other,” Chang said. “You get the sense that everyone is all in.”
While most East Boston schools are ranked highly, they do not have the highest MCAS scores in the state.
Under the state’s accountability system, schools can earn a Level 1 designation — the highest rating — if they hit their targets in closing achievement gaps among their students and as long as their scores do not rank in the bottom 20 percent statewide.
There are several other Boston schools that do well by their English learners, such as the Hurley K-8 in the South End and Boston International High School in Dorchester.
Theories abound as to why other schools fall short. Several educators and advocates suggest some have been overwhelmed with an unexpected influx of English language learners.
Chang said the school system is committed to helping other schools adopt new strategies. That effort, he said, could be aided if a bill to bring back bilingual education, which the Legislature approved last week, becomes law.
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While most East Boston schools have found success, East Boston High is struggling — and it offers insights into the challenges faced by other schools across the city. Its MCAS scores rank in the bottom 20 percent statewide, although its graduation rate has been climbing fairly steadily over the past decade, with about two-thirds of the class of 2016 earning a diploma within four years.
The school in many ways is a reflection of its neighborhood: Almost half of its nearly 1,400 students were born in about a dozen other countries, mostly in Latin America, while a quarter of its freshman class this year are newly arrived immigrants. The new immigrants have a wide range in English fluency, and some have not had any formal education in years.
“If you teach at East Boston High School, there is a good chance you will have an English language learner in your classroom or a former student with limited English proficiency,” said headmaster Phillip Brangiforte, an alumnus who grew up across the street from the school.
Students who enter high school with language barriers face a much steeper learning curve in gaining English fluency than their preadolescent peers because the written and spoken word is far more sophisticated than in the first grade.
All the while, most of these students have to take algebra, science, and other classes in a language they do not understand, making it difficult for them to progress academically. A few students, those who have not attended schools in their native countries for several years, may get placed in special programs where they can be taught temporarily in their native language.
For the past several years, East Boston High has been overhauling instruction. The school has, for instance, replaced lectures with more hands-on assignments, while teachers have been receiving training to help students with language barriers.
Brangiforte said the changes have helped students feel more engaged in school, noting the number of students who are chronically absent has tumbled from 58 percent seven years ago to 35 percent last school year.
He hopes the instructional changes will eventually be reflected in the school’s MCAS scores, which have varied in recent years, although notably higher than a decade ago.
Manuela Marin, 16, said she was nervous when she arrived in East Boston a few months ago from Colombia not knowing a word of English, but with the help of her teachers and classmates at East Boston High, she can now speak some basic English. She said she is highly motivated to become fully fluent because she wants to become a doctor and will need a college scholarship.
“I need to be the best in my classes, so I can achieve my dreams in this country,” she said.